On Monday, the White House stated that it would share with the world its entire stockpiles of currently unapproved AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines in the coming months upon receiving clearance from federal safety regulators – a welcome and needed move.
Yet given India’s urgent and worsening Covid crisis, President Joe Biden should bypass federal regulatory approval and release the 60 million doses to New Delhi without delay.
Putting those vaccines on New Delhi-bound aircraft this week is desperately needed.
While Indian authorities are facing critical shortages of oxygen and telling people to secure oxygen supplies for themselves, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his administration will set up 551 oxygen-generation plants “in every district to ensure adequate oxygen availability.”
While America’s 60 million AstraZeneca doses will not help those Indian citizens who are tragically dying at this moment in New Delhi’s hospitals and streets, India’s national capital has become ground zero for the epidemic and is in need of both oxygen supplies and vaccine assistance as its own national vaccination campaign stalls.
Worsening matters, nations that were depending on India’s Serum Institute – the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer – for vaccine production have faced delays due to the Indian government’s recent policy of curtailing exports of doses as Covid-19 has spiked inside India. These countries now face the prospect of dangerous Covid mutant strains developing, prolonging the pandemic.
The US AstraZeneca stockpiles – albeit insufficient at 60 million doses for India’s entire population – can nonetheless play a needed role in combating Covid-19 in New Delhi before additional variants develop on Indian soil and spread beyond its borders.
This comes at a time when the US is able to inoculate its entire population with the highly efficacious Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
As overall US Covid-19 numbers improve and stabilize, the timing is right for Washington to get aid to New Delhi. While the White House should be commended for providing help to India in the form of raw materials for vaccines along with oxygen equipment, therapeutics, test kits, personal protective equipment and vaccine production financing, these measures by themselves will be insufficient to blunt India’s current rise in cases.
To this end, on a top priority basis, the Biden administration needs to surge assistance to New Delhi and deliver the AstraZeneca stockpiles within days.
Without question, after some initial successes in managing the virus, mistakes were subsequently made by the Indian authorities and several factors contributed to the current Covid emergency in the country.
Among them were vaccine diplomacy, which involved the export of India’s vaccines to more than 90 countries while large swaths of the Indian population were still unvaccinated; going forward with the (ongoing) two-month Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament; massive political rallies for state elections in West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu; large Holi festival celebrations in late March; and the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar, Uttarakhand state, where pilgrims gathered en masse to dip in the holy waters of the River Ganges (Ganga).
These damaging policy failures aside, India’s growing economic, cultural and geopolitical ties to the United States compel the Biden administration to do more to help New Delhi in its hour of need.
A failure to provide vaccine assistance promptly to India while America is awash in anti-Covid shots would raise questions about the durability of the US-India partnership and possibly even form doubts about the viability of “the Quad,” the informal strategic dialogue among the US, India, Japan and Australia that seeks to provide a balance to China’s rise and ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
While President Biden’s and particularly Vice-President Kamala Harris’ concerns about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda and conditions in Muslim-majority Kashmir are well known, these reservations ought not to get in the way of Washington releasing the 60-million-strong AstraZeneca vaccine stockpile to New Delhi.
Such an outcome would provide a propaganda victory to Beijing, supporting President Xi Jinping’s narrative that democratic nations are in decline and unable to deliver for their citizens while China’s authoritarian system can be a model for other countries.
More important, however, speedy vaccine relief and support to New Delhi will get India’s crucial vaccine production operations back on track while stemming the virus’ spread and mutation. Above all, it will save lives and help alleviate the suffering of our Indian friends.
Ted Gover PhD (@TedGover) is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.